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All the Ways to Say I Love You

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - September 28, 2016

Judith Light
Photo by Joan Marcus

Few of those documenting the ever-raging battle of the sexes in the theatre are quite as experienced as Neil LaBute, who's made it some part of practically every play he's written. Ambiguity, however, has rarely been his weapon of choice: He's more about putting everything out in the open and letting the chips (and relationships and blood) fall where they may. But his new play for MCC Theater at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, All the Ways to Say I Love You, takes a different tack. It presents the facts (or at least one version of them) and dares you to break them down and figure out what really happened between the two participants in a passionate but ill-fated relationship. And darned if it's not compelling enough, as directed by Leigh Silverman and performed by Judith Light, to make you want to do it.

As for the details of that relationship, well... It's tough to avoid spoilers here, as the entirety of the one-hour show directly concerns the pairing in question. So I will divulge that the middle-aged woman Light plays, known only as Mrs. Johnson, is a teacher, and her paramour is the high school student for whom she's a guidance counselor. That much is admitted early on. And, not long afterward, she digs so far into the details of what they did to and with each other during their fling of a few months during the boy's senior year that it seems safe to accept that declaration at face value as well.

Beyond that, who can know for sure? Was it strictly about forbidden pleasure, or was he using her? For that matter, was she using him? How deep did their feelings for each other really run? And did they actually intentionally change each other's lives, or was that merely a fortunate—unfortunate?—byproduct of something they never should have done in the first place?

LaBute raises all these questions and many more, and constantly weaves new surprises and complexities into the mix as he tantalizes you. (There's an indication that race-based paternalism might have played a role, for example. And an exchange of money between the two can easily be seen as either pure philanthropy or one buying the other's silence.) And through his meticulous exploration of Mrs. Johnson's psyche, every permutation becomes possible, or even likely, at least for a few minutes. By the end of the play, when we've heard all she has to tell, we know everything and nothing, and that seems like exactly the right state for us to be in.

It should be noted that All the Ways to Say I Love You will not satisfy those looking for spine-shivering shocks, or those who are hoping for the kind of skin-flaying fireworks LaBute perfected earlier in his career. Intriguing though the play might be in the melodies and harmonies it presents, its tone is undeniably more muted. And it's not helped in this regard by a general lack of action; the set (by Rachel Hauck) depicts Mrs. Johnson's office as an oasis of reality in the midst of the universe's inherent unknowability, which is a perfect match for the all-recollection-all-the-time structure of the monologue. We're kept at a firm distance from all this, implicated in her behavior but not allowed to enter into it, and that can cause the few scenes that veer off-topic—as well as the overwrought ending—to drag.

It's tough not to buy into it, though. This is part because the scenario is one that's all too familiar from news reports in recent years, and in part because Silverman keeps our attention locked on exactly where it needs to be. But mostly it's because of Light, who brings exactly the right combination of characteristics to the part to kindle our interest, our sympathy, and even our revulsion in so many different ways. Her Mrs. Johnson has the outwardly curt, patrician fa├žade of a no-nonsense teacher, but who is clearly working to hide the heat inside. When she lets it out—sometimes in drips, occasionally in floods—it's accompanied by an aching air of tragedy that effortlessly reflects the critical importance it played in this woman's life. This is additionally layered with plenty of the dry deadpan at which Light excels, suggesting, for all the ecstasy and agony the affair has brought her, Mrs. Johnson is also well aware of the absurdity of it all.

You can't pin her down any more than that, and you can't get any closer to understanding the truth of what she did or of what it meant. And, for the most part, you won't want to. For me, what was even more engaging than watching the play was leaving the theater afterward and discussing with two friends what we'd all just seen. Their interpretations were strikingly different than mine, catching on ideas I hadn't considered (or, at any rate, dwelled on), and when I explained mine to them, they evinced a similar reaction. All the Ways to Say I Love You may not be a great play, and this mounting of it—Light notwithstanding—may not inspire reverent chatter a decade from now. But it offers plenty to think about and talk about today, which is more than many "better" or "more exciting" evenings can claim.

All the Ways to Say I Love You
Through October 16
MCC Theater at The Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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